Today, it's a day of fireworks, barbecues, and celebration. In the past, however, it also was remembered for humiliating defeat, sad passings, and decisive victories. Each involved one of America's most respected figures.
Fort Necessity at Great Meadows. Here in a clearing in western Pennsylvania began a world war that transformed the British Empire and gave an American icon his first taste of military responsibility.
Europe had divided into two camps: Britain and her small club of allies against France and the most formidable empires on the Continent. Any spark could set off a war covering the globe. France and the British colony of Virginia both claimed the Forks of the Ohio, now Pittsburgh. Virginia's colonial government sent 19 year old Major George Washington to set their claim on more solid ground.
Washington found Fort Duquesne already built at the forks, watched his Indian allies butcher a French patrol, then went to Great Meadow and built one of the worst fortifications ever constructed. It sat near a source of water, but was surrounded by high ground on all sides, had large gaps in the wall, and had treelines within shooting distance. The French could fire into it all day while hiding behind the massive virgin timber.
The Virginians fled the fort on July 4th. French troops caught up, forced Washington to sign humiliating terms of capitulation, then sent him home to Virginia who immediately put him to work . . . building forts.
July 4, 1754. Proof that failure teaches better than success.
One of the greatest friendships/rivalries in the history of this, or any other country. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
They knew each other for nearly 50 years, although no one would say they spent that long as friends. Adams' careful editing of the Declaration of Independence chased Jefferson from the Continental Congress into a multi-year pout.
Jefferson's self-imposed exile eventually ended. Both men spent the post war period struggling to represent the United States (one nation or 13, many asked before passage of the Constitution.) Both Adams and Jefferson earned more respect as individuals than they could sell for their country. Their intellects differed, Adams more pragmatic, Jefferson more idealistic, but they complemented each other at this point even as they mainly interacted through correspondence.
Later, Jefferson and Adams clashed. Not so much when Jefferson served as a restive secretary of state and Adams an ignored vice president, but certainly when both ran for president. One of the few major flaws in the founding document gave second place in the Electoral College the vice presidency. The Federalist Adams had to constantly fend off attacks from his own vice president in the highly partisan press of the time.
Both men ran again in 1800. Reason turned some of the more vicious partisan statements into campaign ads. Their mutual hatred lasted for well over a decade after.
Eventually hard feelings softened. The two preeminent American intellects of the early 19th century sat on the political trash heap, rarely consulted. Adams' son John Quincy and Jefferson's political son James Madison assumed the stage. Between the two men emerged a remarkable series of letters about a wide spectrum of subjects. Much of the correspondence involved questions, answers, and responses to answers.
Intellectual sharing grew into a fully reborn and close friendship that lasted until July 4th, 1826. As Adams lay on his deathbed, his final words were, Jefferson still lives.
But Adams was wrong. His former bitter rival and close friend had died the same day.
One thing often forgotten about the Civil War, the Union did not see its victory as inevitable until the very end. Northern superiority in so many fields could not easily defeat a fully mobilized Confederacy fighting on its own soil.
The Union in 1862 had come close to capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, but had to retreat despite being in sight of its goal. Antietam was technically a victory for the Union in the fall of the year, but left Lincoln frustrated because General McClellan seemed uninterested in finishing off Lee's army.
Meanwhile, social cohesion in the South deteriorated. Most of the Confederate States saw their ability to enforce authority break down in the back country. Lee knew that European help would not come and that the South would lose a war of attrition. He gambled on a master stroke: striking north.
Meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant hammered his own war of attrition against Mississippi Valley strongholds. Like Lincoln, he understood the Confederacy would only lose when its armies were destroyed. He ground away at strong points that the South felt compelled to defend, like Vicksburg.
Lee's three day assault on fortified Union lines near Gettysburg cost his army. The best of his beloved Virginians died on the third day and his Army of Northern Virginia staggered home on July 4th.
Grant surrounded Vicksburg, last Confederate held position on the Mississippi. Over several weeks, his tightening grip strangled Confederate resistance. When Vicksburg ran out of victuals, its commander proposed surrender. Grant refused to accept until the 4th of July.